In June 1993 Malawians voted in a referendum that gave them an opportunity to choose between continuing with one party state or adopt a multiparty democracy in which 64.69 per cent of Malawians chose the latter. This outcome paved way for presidential and parliamentary elections in May 1994 which Bakili Muluzi won, ending Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s 31 years of dictatorship.
Malawi’s new democratic constitution came into force in 1995. Civil society groups, including the media, academia, and civil and human rights organisations emerged as major winners. Malawians were now free to express themselves as they pleased. Women were among the most notable beneficiaries of the new constitution. They were finally liberated from the shackles of Kamuzu Banda’s 1973 dress act that banned wearing of miniskirts and trousers for women.
Still, it needed a societal mind-set shift on what was an acceptable form of dress for women in the country. Seeing a woman wearing a miniskirt or trousers was almost inconceivable for the majority of the population that had learned to see and accept things the Kamuzu Banda way.
Though still a very conservative country, women in Malawi now dress as they please without fear of persecution or harassment – barring an episode in early 2012 when group of men, allegedly vendors, harassed and undressed women wearing miniskirts and trousers on the streets of Lilongwe and Mzuzu. This caused a national uproar, including a condemnation from the late President Bingu wa Mutharika. The national outcry form men and women alike signaled a huge shift in attitude towards freedom of dress for women in the country.
It was for this reason that it appeared like a practical joke when it cropped up on twitter recently that Malawi’s oldest media group, Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL), (publishers of five newspapers: one daily and four weeklies) had banned its female workers from wearing trousers and miniskirts at work. There was a reaction of shock and disgust on social networks, Twitter and Facebook, when it eventually turned out that it was not a joke after all. Apparently, BNL decided to evoke an alleged clause in its workers’ “conditions of service”, which a female employee at the news group confided: “…it is not that clear, it just says dress smartly. No mention of minis or trousers.”
Perhaps no one at BNL bothered to read their “conditions of service” after all? Such possibility is inconceivable given the reaction from the workers. What is clear however is that female employees are not happy and their reaction certainly indicates this took everyone by surprise. A female at the news group confirmed this was the case:
“It was something management decided, we were simply told, no room to argue. Those who want to defend their dressing have been told to go [to the management] as individuals … if you don’t have clothes you can get a loan [to purchase necessary clothes], if you don’t like the decision leave/resign,” she said.
At the time of writing, it was unclear whether the female workers were accepting the decision willy-nilly or they would fight against it. Disregarding how the situation will unravel, this is a particularly worrying trend given that this is a big and influential media group in a democratic country where freedoms such as the one it is denying its workers are paramount. BNL bosses would be among the first to complain if any of the media related constitutional provisions were violated by anyone. Why does it please them to violate constitutional rights of its employees?
Would BNL bosses not want its journalists cover a scandal like this if it were to happen to, say, a government department? Should Malawians count out BNL to ever stand up and protect the constitution of the land if, say, the government was to decide that women in Malawi should no longer wear miniskirts and trousers? Is there any safer piece of clothing than trousers for a woman? Let alone a journalist that her pursuit for information can take her anywhere? And yes, there are ‘smart’ females out there. Why should ‘dressing smartly’ only apply to women?
Times Group is in a business of holding public official and influential people to account. It is very worrying when an organisation in the business of making news become news itself – BNL bosses ought to know this. This may be an in-house issue, and there is plausible argument for that but BNL bosses have a moral obligation, not only to explain itself but to reverse this ban – it has no place in democratic Malawi.